NBA playoffs: Nikola Jokić and the Nuggets roll into NBA Finals with confidence, real respect

LOS ANGELES — LeBron James pleaded for a call, while Nikola Jokić raised his weary arms in victory — no matter the game, the Joker trumps a King, even if the King gets off to a rousing start.

The Denver Nuggets advanced to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history, completing what some will call an improbable sweep against the Los Angeles Lakers on Monday night in another thriller, a 113-111 Game 4 win at Arena.

The Nuggets are the first team to reach the Finals this season because of basic tenets that have carried them throughout the entire year — a professional approach that allowed them to withstand an emotional barrage from James and holding themselves accountable for their first real lackluster effort in the playoffs.

After allowing 31 first-half points to James and 71 to the Lakers, they played the long game — not quite going slow and steady but being opportunistic and realizing the way they’ve built this team incrementally over the last several years would come to bear fruit.

If you squint, they’re an old-school team with a hard-nosed coach who pays enough attention to tell you how much attention he doesn’t pay. It’s rare to see a core that hasn’t won championships stick together for years, grow through heartbreak and individual hardships yet emerge with wide eyes as opposed to weary ones.

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokić drives to the basket against the Los Angeles Lakers during the first quarter in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals at Arena in Los Angeles on May 22, 2023. (Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports)
Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokić drives to the basket against the Los Angeles Lakers during the first quarter in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals at Arena in Los Angeles on May 22, 2023. (Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports) (USA Today Sports / reuters)

Jokić is the outlier of outliers, the 41st pick who head coach Michael Malone didn’t see superstar in at first glance but kept at it for days and weeks and years until reaching the doorstep of true NBA immortality.

“I always think about this and laugh because that first Summer League in Vegas, 300 pounds, out of shape — he’s a nice player,” Malone said. “No one, and if anybody tells you different, they're full of s***. No one ever could have seen that he’d be a two-time MVP, passing Wilt Chamberlain it seems like every other night. That speaks to his dedication to his craft, getting in great shape and understanding that for him to fulfill his potential, he had to work harder, and he’s done that.”

Malone has been Jokić’s staunchest defender, particularly against the narrative that could’ve cost him a third straight MVP.

Getting to the Finals is validation enough, particularly doing it against a rejuvenated Anthony Davis.

“The MVPs are real. The triple-doubles are real. The narratives, the silly narratives this year are just what, silly and somewhat ignorant,” Malone said. “I think Nikola has gone through three rounds now where he’s averaging a triple-double in the playoffs. Have you seen any stat-padding out there? I’m serious, enough of the silliness.

“The guy is a great player; give him his damn respect. Stop chopping him down at the knees. He’s a great player, and give him the respect he deserves.”

Jokić passed Chamberlain in playoff triple-doubles with 30 points, 14 rebounds and 13 assists, overcoming yet another foul-filled start to shake loose and work himself to critical buckets late — a couple with Davis draped all over and around him.

An awkward one-legged 3-pointer that shook that visiting building felt like an omen the Nuggets were destined to complete the sweep, to withstand James’ best efforts and finally erase the dubious distinction of being the lone team remaining from the ABA who hadn’t yet qualified for the NBA Finals.

Even James, who had a sterling performance in defeat with 40 points, 10 assists and 9 rebounds, couldn’t help but credit Jokić. Afterward, James hinted at this being his last game, but it feels unlikely he would walk away without more bites at the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

If he does return, he’ll have to deal with an emerging Nuggets team that expects to be around for the foreseeable future — and possibly with jewelry of its own before next October.

“I think we came to the consensus, this is if not one of the best teams, if not the best team, we’ve played together for all four years. Just well-orchestrated, well put together,” James said. “And even when you guard him for one of the best possessions that you think you can guard him, he puts the ball behind his head Larry Bird style and shoots it 50 feet in the air and it goes in, like he did four or five times this series. So you do like this to him (tipping cap).”

Malone has been on a campaign — perhaps paying too much attention to what’s being said on television about his team — for universal respect. Jokić was voted a two-time MVP by the media, but the perception is nobody pays attention to him, and so many found it hard to believe in the Denver Nuggets as a finalist through the treacherous West.

In part because the Denver Nuggets have never done it. They haven’t been whole in a few years with the injuries to Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., but they’ve had their own heartbreaks when they were pups — blowing a seventh game at home in 2019 to the Portland Trail Blazers.

That was Jokić’s second playoff series, and while he performed admirably in defeat (29 points, 13 rebounds), he was nowhere near the force he is now. Murray had his hands full with C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard, and had a game he’d like to forget.

But that day, and so many others, prepared them for this one. Teams in previous eras went through real athletic pain, and real doubt on their way to greatness, and to that end, these Nuggets are no different.

Even through this playoff series, perceived weaknesses turned to strengths in critical moments. Murray was hunted by James in the opening game of this series, with James calling for switches and Murray in foul trouble. Yet it was Murray who challenged James’ drive on the last play, getting two hands on the ball, being just as aggressive defensively as James looked to be hoping to tie the game.

Murray wasn’t sure what the last play would be, but the instinct borne of some heartbreak prepared him to propel himself into James’ line of sight. Before James or Murray could dig out the ball on the baseline, the buzzer sounded and joy emerged.

“It’s tough to guard LeBron with foul trouble,” Murray said. “At the end of the play, I just saw [Aaron Gordon] was a little late, and I kind of remembered that play against Indiana when he went up for the left-handed layup. So I wasn’t going to let him have a good angle.”

Murray didn’t win the Magic Johnson Award for Western Conference finals MVP, but he was in the running for it the first three games. He didn’t need another loud performance to close out the Lakers.

But he was steady with 25 points and 5 assists, refusing to turn the ball over and give life to a Lakers team that was desperate in searching for light. The Lakers thought they were finding light in leaving Gordon open, the weak shooting link in Denver’s potent first five.

But the man who struggled in last year’s first round against Golden State kept shooting and kept making the Lakers pay for their insolence, and stood up physically to James to boot. Gordon was open when the Lakers went up 17, and he was open when the Nuggets walked the game back down.

Shooting 31% from 3 this playoff, it was a calculated decision, one Gordon knew he would be left to counter. Three triples in five attempts later, he answered the call.

“It’s about the work. The work works. I mean, I rep it,” Gordon said. “I rep it every day. It’s something I work on every day. I’m not worried about whether they’re going in or whether they’re going out. It’s a matter of just shooting them with confidence.”

It was easy to see the Nuggets growing through this series, the confidence in themselves and in the belief no stage is too big.

They’re on a roll, rolling to June, and it might be too late to stop them now.